“The days you work are the best days” Georgia O’Keeffe

Many years ago, I gave a talk for NYU’s Faculty Resource Network called The Balancing Act: Teaching, Administrative Work, Writing and Other Things…

The other name for the talk was “On Wearing Many Hats” which was phrase I was fond of. Given that I work at a school of the arts, this title also opened up space to make the talk a sort of performance and throughout I was changing hats and at times wearing more than one to make a point. At the time, when my colleagues saw the title of the talk, they were most interested in the “other things”. Well, they were and still are: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – family, health and all of the things that are critical for a healthy life.

The question is – how do we balance all of these “hats” and succeed? How does ones life relate to one’s work and vice versa. Here are the issues I discussed: 1) how to prioritize, 2) how to manage competing priorities, 3) how to make your schedule public without complaining, 4) when to say no, and 5) how to say no.

“Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it” Julia Child

#1 How to prioritize. I’ve been at NYU for 35 years now and I still start every fall as if I have a new job and this year, I actually do. But, even if you are doing the same work and you think you know all there is to know, still inform yourself of the changes in your environment and immediate work context. Each and every year we need to ask: what are the institution’s priorities, what is the social and political structure in your unit and what are the means of evaluation and advancement. You should always know who your supporters and mentors are but more importantly your critics. In terms of your professional goals and priorities, consider these five critical areas.

1- Raises

2- Promotions

3- Additional Responsibilities

4- Additional Staff (which can be more essential than one or two)

5- Benefits and Perks

Prioritize based on stated goals and immediate deadlines of your job and stay focussed on matters that are in alignment with the overall mission. That was for the professional side and now the personal. These are the five areas, not just for the sake of the individual, but those you live with, work with and for, and face every day.

1- Health – mind, body and spirit.

2- Family, friends, home.

3- Rest and relaxation.

4- Vacations, holidays and general charging of the batteries.

5- Career horizons and planning ahead.

“Walk away from it until you’re stronger. All your problems will be there when you get back, but you’ll be better able to cope” Lady Bird Johnson

So, the answer is wear one hat at a time. 

#2 How to manage competing priorities. First thing is to figure out the deadline. Second figure out the workflow and time management plan then proceed with a strategy. If you find you don’t have the time you need then the next thing is to decide what can be put on hold, cancelled, or transferred to a colleague (yes, sometimes we have to ask for help). Try to stay away from cancelling matters that have to do with self-care like health, rest, and family. If all else fails, and you really believe the project will fail and be a mark on your reputation, go back to you supervisor and ask for advice, additional help, or revise the goals to something manageable.

“Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment” Oprah Winfrey

#3 How to make your schedule public without complaining. Make a habit of letting those around you know what you are doing. Make the conversation a casual one and don’t wait until you are asked to do something or be somewhere and come up with along list of things you have to do. Say things like, “will I see you at this event tonight?” “really looking forward to the panel this evening” or “you joining us for the retreat this weekend?” and so on.

#4 When to say no. This is the hardest one and I use it rarely but here are three recommendations:

1- If you definitely cannot do a good job. Say no.

2- If the idea has failed before and the circumstances remain the same ensuring another failure in your name. Say no.  This however will require a well-researched narrative.

3- If you absolutely have no passion or interest in it because it will show and you will bring nothing to the process. Say no.

#5 How to say no. First, thank the person(s) for the invitation, the opportunity, the privilege. If you can say something nice about the project, idea, or panel and how exciting it sounds. Don’t say no right away, let the full request or presentation take place – hear them out fully and ask questions. Offer to think about it, thank them again. You want to avoid being hurtful, rude, or dismissive or appearing that you have no interest. This is the time to get someone to feel ok about the forthcoming no. So, when you do give the respectful “no” you can offer to do something else if needed or ask them to keep you in mind for the future. Also, be prepared to offer other suggestions or help in some way.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” Maya Angelou

We all need to be aware of the dangers of taking on too much. It can affect the quality of our good work, our health, our relationships at work and at home. Sometimes, if things start to “go south” you will be the last to notice so look out for someone saying, “you look tired lately” or “are you ok?” or “you have been making a lot of mistakes” or “did you mean to send that email?” Any of these should indicate that you need to step back and re-boot.

We all need to think about and answer some fundamental questions regarding the work life balancing act . What does work mean to your life? Do we live to work or do we work to live? Who evaluates or work? How do we evaluate our own work? How does your work contribute to your life (and here I am not just talking about money) and how does your life contribute to your work? Setting achievable goals in general is a healthy thing. Setting unreasonable goals sets us up for falling short every day and eventually leads to our feeling unsuccessful if we can’t accomplish all we set out to do on a regular basis. It is important to live in such a way that when we come in to work we are energized and not depleted. We know ourselves best and have to learn to balance both the personal and professional environments in order to be successful and not to mention happy…